I never thought I’d write an amateur sleuth mystery. I didn’t read amateur sleuth mysteries, and I wasn’t particularly interested in any mystery that had a hobby as a theme. It seemed too easy, perhaps.
And then my editor asked me if I’d be interested in writing a tattoo shop mystery. I had just finished the last of my Annie Seymour mysteries, my publisher wasn’t interested in any more of them, but they did want to give me another series. My first reaction was, “oh, no, an amateur sleuth.” I reluctantly agreed.
I am the first to admit that my preconceived notions about writing an amateur sleuth mystery series were dead wrong. It wasn’t easy. Yes, the idea of a tattooist solving crimes is ridiculous; yes, it’s fiction. But cozy readers who love their amateur sleuths do expect some sort of plausibility, a sense that the amateur sleuth—who is just like them—can actually solve a crime. Before the police do. And in the middle of it, perhaps even fall in love.
There is a bit of the formula in the amateur sleuth cozy: the heroine must be fairly young, spunky, attractive. She must be surrounded by loveable but quirky secondary characters who enable her attempts to solve whatever crime is at hand. There is usually a hunky police detective and sparks will fly. My protagonist, Brett Kavanaugh, is all of the above, and she’s a little too nosy for her own good. Her tattoo shop staff is always willing to help her. The hunky police detective, however, is her brother.
Setting up the cozy stage wasn’t too difficult, but keeping those plausible reasons for Brett to get involved and then solving the crimes is the hard part. Annie Seymour, as a police reporter, had reasons to come across dead bodies and crime. Brett has no excuse, although a tattoo shop could arguably be a place for a criminal element. In each book, however, I have a personal reason for Brett to become involved.
The irony is that even though cozy readers want an amateur sleuth protagonist, many of them push the envelope as far as that plausibility factor is concerned. My books have been criticized by a few reviewers who ask why Brett keeps pursuing the case when her brother should be working it instead. Or one who pointed out that her police officer friends said the brother wouldn’t even be on the case if his sister was involved. Granted, it’s fiction and if Brett’s brother took over, there would be no book. But those criticisms keep me grounded; I strive in each book to make it as believable as possible. I have tried not to make Brett too stupid to live, an unforgivable crime by an author, and I have not turned her into some sort of cartoon superhero. That would be easy.
So I am not so quick to judge those amateur sleuth mysteries anymore. I know the skill that those authors have to have in order to keep their fictional worlds turning in the right direction, to make their protagonists who knit or own apple orchards or cook in the White House kitchen believably solve a crime. It’s a balancing act I never had to deal with when writing a police reporter character. And I believe it’s made me a better writer.